Friday, February 26, 2010

It's a Mouthful!

Things are moving along albeit at a slower pace than we like to see. Gabe is almost finished with the camper. He had hoped to move it today but it might not be for a few more days. Our cover crop seed order has been delayed 3 times! Once due to snow and twice due to 2 trucks breaking down that were going to deliver the goods. Hopefully our order will get here next week, and HOPEFULLY the field will get plowed next week too! This plowing thing is triiicckkyyy.....there is a very small window in the spring to get your plowing done. Winter is so wet and cold, you do severe damage to the soil if you plow in unfavorable conditions. Wet soil is easily compacted, which makes the field not drain and roots have a hard time penetrating the compacted soil, so you're plants are very unhappy with this. It does not pay to rush the plowing but you can't dilly dally either! Most farmers say you get one good day in the spring to plow and you better get on it! Wayne's going to plow our field for us. He's had some tractor trouble but has a smaller tractor he can use and it will be just fine. So it hasn't hurt us yet that our cover crop seed order isn't here. I'm sure it will get here right on time, and then we'll get that planted and feel so much more sane about things. We ordered a biodynamic field spray that you spray on right after tilling, it is supposed to help the microorganisms break down the grass and stuff after tilling. Maybe we'll spray part of the field and not the other part and see what the difference is?

Speaking of experimentation, we are doing an on-farm trial with heirloom-type hybrid tomatoes! This is VERY exciting! Here's the low-down on heirloom-type hybrids:
A tomato is not simply a tomato, like a person is not simply a person; tomato genes differ widely within the species - there are over 1,000 types of tomatoes I think. Don't quote me on that, it's close to accurate but the point is they vary widely. Some of these differences are visible (these are called phenotypes, or bodily characteristics, like in humans the color of our hair/eyes, or the shape of our toes) and some are harder to see, like the ability to ward off a plant disease. Humans are this way too, right? Some of us are more susceptible to certain diseases, or even inherit a disease genetically thru our parents.

Well, when you breed a tomato by crossing one type with another (the pollen of a brandywine fertilizes the ovule of a beefsteak, say), you make a hybrid. That's it. Most of you remember Mendel's peas, right? Some people are scared of the word hybrid, but hybridization is just selection by humans; selection happens all the time naturally.

Heirloom-type hybrids in this case are crosses of heirloom tomatoes with hybrid lines (developed from heirlooms anyway, b/c that's all we had for many years). These hybrid lines were developed for certain qualities over the last 75 years or so. The kinds of traits tomatoes have been bred for over the last 75, give or take a few 20, years are things like 1) thicker skin 2) delayed maturation of fruit and 3) "boxey" bodies - do you notice a trend here? Correct! They have been bred to be shipped long distances. How bout that? They have not been bred for 1) flavor 2) flavor or 3) flavor. Did I mention they don't taste very good? You probably already noticed this. Well, sometimes the genes that make for a good flavor are combined with genes that do not allow the plant to resist disease, like late blight for example. So you have a potentially wonderfully tasting tomato, but you can't eat it b/c it dies before the fruit is ripe. Bummer! Herein lies the beauty of breeding for disease resistance and flavor. That is what Randy Gardner, the recently retired tomato breeder with NC State, started doing about 5 years ago. The result? Some absolutely gorgeous, delicious, disease resistant varieties. This is so exciting!

Organic farmers have few options available to them for controlling the most devastating tomato disease: late blight (Phytopthera infestans). Even conventional growers with their arsenals of chemicals can't really stop phytopthera. Did you know phytopthera caused the potato famine? So choosing genetically resistant varieties is important. You reduce the amount of spray you use and the plants just grow better. The picture with this post is of an heirloom-type hybrid planted last year. This picture was taken near the middle of October last year. Considering that late blight moved in to our area in mid to late July, this is extremely impressive. Am I being too much of a science nerd here?! I just think this stuff is fascinating. Particularly when it comes to organic farming.

Organic farming strives to minimize off-farm inputs, creating a holistic system of agriculture that is as self-sufficient as possible. Importing fungicide sprays onto the farm, whether they are organic or conventional, is expensive in many ways. Choosing plants that are resistant to diseases common in your growing area is smart in so many ways. We are excited to be a part of this trial that hopefully will result in the release of the these yummy, super-tomatoes that can stand up strong against the "Plant Destroyer!" Phytopthera.

Phytopthera infestans is a mouthful, isn't it?! So is our farm name : ) Gabe pointed this out to me....what do ya'll think is a better "tag" for our farm: "High in Organic Matter" or "It's a Mouthfull!" ? ? ?

I guess that's all for now. We now have broccoli, valerian, and hyssop seeds sprouted. It's been very cold in my house so some of our seeds are lingering, waiting for it to warm up a bit! Our plan is to get into the hoophouse next week and start sowing cool-weather crops for transplanting, as well as some vegetables that have a very long growing season, like peppers and eggplant. With a warm, sunny hoophouse the seeds should start sprouting all over the place!

Love and light and hang in there a little longer, spring is coming!

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